• Driving Awareness 
     

    Distracted driving refers to anything that takes your eyes or mental focus off of the road. It can be reaching for something in the car or navigating the increasingly complicated controls that our testers have seen in many newer car models. But the use of cell phones behind the wheel has become a particular concern in recent years.

    It's difficult to accurately assess the full extent of the problem.  Still, available information shows that 5,474 people were killed and almost a half million were injured in accidents related to distracted driving in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Department of Transportation. And 18 percent of those fatal accidents involved the use of a cell phone.

    The problem is especially pronounced among younger drivers. Sixteen percent of all teenage drivers involved in a fatal crash were reported to have been distracted while driving. Among our survey respondents who are under 30 years old, 63 percent reported using a handheld phone while driving within the previous 30 days; almost one in three texted behind the wheel. That compares with 41 and 9 percent, respectively, of respondents who are 30 or older.

    The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has conducted several studies that illustrate how texting and cell-phone use impair driving. In a 2006 study, it found that almost 80 percent of all crashes are caused by driver inattention. A 2009 study found that physically dialing a phone while driving increases the risk of a crash as much as six times. And a study of commercial truckers showed that texting behind the wheel is riskier still, increasing the risk of a crash 23 times compared with non-distracted driving.

    The reason is clear: Texting or dialing a cell phone—or even scrolling through the menus of an iPod—forces you to take your eyes off of the road, leaving you virtually driving blind. That is exacerbated by the fact that the small buttons and screens and complex menus of portable electronics aren't designed for use while driving, unlike the controls on a car's dashboard.

    The effect of the cell-phone conversation itself is less clear. The 2009 Virginia Tech study shows little risk from cell-phone conversation. But a 2001 study conducted by the University of Utah found that participants who engaged in cell-phone conversations missed twice as many simulated traffic signals as when they were not talking on a phone, and it took longer to react to signals they did notice. 

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